Protecting the Wonders of the World

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Sissie Brimberg / National Geographic / Getty

Lascaux Caves in southwestern France are among the UNESCO World Heritage sites some say need more vigilant protection

At its annual meeting in Quebec City this week, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee added another 27 sites to its already burgeoning list of places of "outstanding universal value." Now wooden churches in Slovakia, Weimar-era housing projects in Berlin, and Armenian monasteries in Iran have been granted the same hallowed status as the Statue of Liberty, Stonehenge, and the Temple of Angkor Wat. And why not? There are plenty of ways to define "a human masterpiece of creative genius," one of the several criteria for inclusion. But now that World Heritage Status has been bestowed on 878 sites, some wonder whether UNESCO has the wherewithal — and the will — to protect its designated sites adequately.

Francesco Bandarin, the director of the World Heritage Center, , insists it does. The List is part of a convention adopted by UNESCO in 1972 meant "to recognize and protect the world's most significant cultural and natural sites," he says. "Over the last 36 years, the Committee and UNESCO have continued to work in line with its original mission." The benefits of getting on the list, he says, include increased visibility, more funding, and access to UNESCO's "knowledge and experience." Including private donations, the WHC has an annual budget of about $20 million; most countries are expected to implement and fund their own protection plans.

The mere designation as a World Heritage site, of course, can be a boon: when the Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire, England, was accorded World Heritage Status in 1986, says Stuart Smith, a former director of the museum there, "People suddenly realized they were living in an incredible site. They started to appreciate it and respect it."

But increased public awareness can be a mixed blessing. In his book Disappearing World: 101 of the Earth's Most Extraordinary and Endangered Places , heritage consultant Alonzo Addison lists unsustainable tourism as one of the key threats to the world's cultural and natural wonders. And there is no doubt that a site's presence on the World Heritage List enhances tourist appeal. "A lot of state parties are tempted to change this from being an environmental and cultural treaty into a tourism promotion committee," says Lincoln Siliakus, an activist with the Wilderness Society of Australia who was in Quebec City for the WHC meeting."

Indeed, many preservationists see the WHC as instinctively reluctant to declare sites endangered without a go-ahead from the government involved. It's one thing to decry the damage earthquakes wrought upon the Iranian city of Bam, protracted civil war on the national parks of the Congo, or the Taliban's 2003 dynamiting of the massive Buddhas of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley. It is clearly another for the Committee to confront the frequently negative impact that unchecked development or mismanagement can have on sensitive locations.

In fact, no sites were added to the endangered list at this year's WHC conclave. Last year the Committee said it would de-list the Elbe Valley in the German city of Dresden if construction proceeded on a four-lane bridge that activists said would damage the valley's delicate landscape. Now that bridge is under construction — but the Committee ruled it would "give Dresden more time" in the hope that local opposition could reverse the damage.

Another highly controversial candidate for sanction also managed to dodge a public bullet — for now. The prehistoric wall paintings of the Lascaux Caves in Southwestern France have been under threat for years from a series of fungus outbreaks that many feel were brought on or exacerbated by the French government's mismanagement of the site. The US-based International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux (ICPL) argued before the Committee for sanctions, and its chair, Laurence Léauté-Beasley, says Lascaux "came very close" to being placed on the endangered list. Instead, the French government agreed to a closer WHC monitoring of the site. "France will now have to answer to the world community," she says. "They will have to be transparent and accountable for the actions they have taken in the past and will take in the future in the treatment of Lascaux." If those efforts aren't sufficient, Léauté-Beasley says, the committee "retains the real option of inscribing Lascaux on the List of World Heritage in Danger 2009." The hope is that conditions of the caves' 17,000-year-old art will improve to the point where the seriousness of that threat won't come to the test.